Michael Stanley & the Resonators: Heartland Revival, Down By the River Sept. 4, Time/Warner Amphitheatre
Michael Stanley & the Resonators
Time Warner Cable Amphitheatre
4 Sept 2010
With “It’s All About Tonight,” Michael Stanley and his now longtime band the Resonators swept onto the stage with an urgency that all but shrieked “your time is now.” With frenzied tempo and a song that suggested the only moment that matters is the one you’re in, it was a call to action for the faithful who’d come together for the Cleveland rockers annual summer stand at one of the tented amphitheatres on Northeastern Ohio’s mighty Cuyahoga River.
That most people have never heard of Michael Stanley – the man who not only sold out Blossom Music Center 5 successive nights in the late 70s and blew out tickets for his 2 night stand at the Richfield Coliseum faster than Led Zeppelin in their prime – did not matter to the close to 2000 fans who’d come to witness a piece of their own history come to life, to remind them who they were when they were in their prime and to reinvest them with that notion that even in dire times, they have more than enough to heart to dig in, hang on and more than get by. It is a witness as much as a party – for the band as much as the people who show up to hear “all the hits that you wanna hear.”
To be – theoretically – unseen, and to inspire such passion is its own conundrum. Stanley is a figure obsessed about by many, derided by some and the mark of a hardcore late‘70s album rock aficionado who knows of the legendary band from their live from the storied Cleveland Agora double disc Stagepass, reputedly gold on local sales alone.
And Stanley, who walks an odd high wire of being a wildly famous person largely unknown beyond his immediate world, takes the reality seriously. His set list ran the gamut of what is known to the true believers as “the first song from the first side of the first Michael Stanley album,” the early Michael Stanley Band AOR classics, later demi-pop hits and a genius cover of “Sweet Jane” melded with “Wichi Tai To,” an Indian peyote chant.
Just as importantly as the breadth of music covered was the continual nudging for the fans – mostly in their late 30s, 40s, 50s – to look at their world, to think about the consequences. Even a seeming post-disco ditty like the hypercharged “Baby If You Want To Dance:,” once a song of dancefloor reckoning for the wrong kind of girl, now more than alludes to the consequences of freefall living with the rest of the tag being given a telling “You gotta pay the band….”
Stanley, who toured with the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Kiss and did “Don Krischner’s Rock Concert” with a band that included Dan Fogelburg, Todd Rundgren and Joe Walsh, has always been one of rock’s more elegant figures. Committed to the notion that the unseen of the Midwest were as heroic as anyone populating a Springsteen, Seger or Lou Reed song, an earmark of his career has always been the desire to inculcate his songs with a deeper level of awareness.
Certainly “In The Heartland” was a tire-squealing cruise missle about the hormonal rites of passage that engulfed not just “the boys (who) are out on Mayfield, dressed to kill,” but anyone cruising with their friends looking for connection, love, salvation through some kind of drive-by sexual healing. But even that hopeful thrust’n’buck bravado yields a deeper reality in the confession “nobody writes the names down, it’s just something that they gotta go through/ cause it’s late at night/ in the heartland…” – the universality of the awkward surge of coming of age.
Equally trenchant is perhaps the best pair of songs filleting the reality of the music business ever written: “Midwest Midnight,” which came second in the set, and the freeform “Let’s Get The Show on the Road.” Meandering AOR anthems, they are as incisive and biting about the truth of what the life is after you’ve been around long enough to know the music business runs on strangling young bands with their dreams and illusions.
“Chasing the fame keeps ‘em all in the game/ but money’s still the way they keep score/ and nobody told you you would grow old/ strung out like some avenue whore,” comes the acid pellets in the former, a song that dizzyingly returns to the chorus of the one who fell in love with the salvation of songs on the radio: “Does the man still play all the hits that you wanna hear?” now a cry for help, a cry to not lose the sacred piece of picking up a guitar.
“Let’s Get the Show on the Road,” this night given an even quieter opening, is a song trapped — like the band Stillwater in Cameron Crowe’s film “Almost Famous” — somewhere on that endless tour, no end in sight, no relief coming. It is watching the red eyed cynicism setting in on the bright spirit who’s chased their dream – and it opens into an indictment of brokering things that should be sacred the music and religion with a telling “The Lord uses the good ones, and the bad ones use the Lord.”
The ferocity of what is curled underneath an already harrowing tale is reinforced by the darker, more funereal tone of the arrangement. Almost elegiac , the feel gets the literal 1,2 as Stanley pushes his guitar neck down and lashes at the air before delivering the vitriolic, “I can’t believe you’d stumble. But then I always knew you’d fall/ It seems so easy to say I knew you when, I’d rather it was not at all… Today’s for sale, and it’s all you can afford/ Buy your own admission, you see the whole thing’s got you bored…”
Danny Powers, a true 70s throwback with long hair flowing, unravels a Santana-esque solo that twines around the melody, almost choking it into submission, lashing and thrashing what – for these fans – is holy ground. But that is the beauty of these shows: they come for the music, and they get re-born in what was.
But they also get prodded into taking a long look at where they are. “Just Another Night in America,” “I Am You” and “Winter” are provocative songs that push big themes with strong imagery and enough musical heft that the crowd stayed with the new material, some singing along, others listening far harder than longterm fans subjected to the unfamiliar traditionally will.
From a tableau of reportage of how we live here and now – something Stanley defined in his prime – these are songs of almost straight reportage from the crumbling center of populist, blue collar America. Starkly arranged so the words can rise to the top, if not a call to arms, certainly a call to awareness – whether the recognition of how alike all but the top 2% of us really are and the polaroids from the erosion that were “I Am You” and “America” respectively.
“Winter,” an almost meditation of the final chapters of life in our times, considers the finite nature of life, the fading of deeper values, even the fatal nature of dreaming. With former Rave-Up Marc Lee Shannon playing an almost Celtic mandolin part, “Winter” builds to an almost Zeppelin-esque folk piece – offering something stunningly beautiful in the heaviness of the message.
Over the years, Stanley’s voice has deepened – not to an offputting gravitas, but certainly to a rich, if worn tone that signals wisdom gained through living, insight from watching a life go by. It is that solidity, not quite oak, but certainly hard wood capable of enough bend to not break that imbues his range with a belief in something more… and at a time when the economic reality of the Rust Belt is perhaps even more dire than when the band came into their own in the late ‘70s, heroes for a town bereft of possibilities.
Recognizing the potency of that identification, Stanley did not eschew the strongest songs of that time – because while the aching “Spanish Nights” and the woman being lost of “Lover” are romantic core samples of the most desperate nature, he knows the heart is essential to surviving the storm. On the latter, the house lights were raised as the gently swaying crowd took the song’s most seminal line – “God bless the man who put the lines on the highway” – a sort of convergence and communion of souls finding their way through the pain and the need.
And need is so much a part of it. In a world of shrinking expectations, lost souls, dwindling faith in the promises made to us – by spouses, church, the government – where does an honest man go? Who is man enough to man up to their word?
Though Michael Stanley, whose “Rosewood Bitters” – that first song from the first side… — is about living rootless, too far from anything that feels solid, never made it to the national spotlight as Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson or Neil Young plied their regionalism to a much larger reality, he has never forgotten where he comes from. In that, he is not ashamed: he is a man, who knows who he is, the values he was raised with and a faith in the people from his hometown.
As major labels implode and fans turns on the disposable injection molded plastic music of too many moments that didn’t matter, he maintains everything he ever did – and the lost souls recognizing that this may be all there is continue to show up, genuflecting in front of the one thing that’s never been less than true to everything held sacred amongst them,
Not that the 60-something rocker believes that all should be dire and sobering. Generous with his stage – turning over old hits to other players, using a Bob Pelander piano-piece to set up “Let’s Get the Show…” – and more than aware that as serious as times are, people still need a release, Winding his set up with the how-sweet-it-was “Somewhere In The Night” with his band lining the stage, delivering a stripped down work out on the chorus, it was an invitation to knowing what was – and what could be.
Returning for a 3 song encore, including the anomaly Top 10 “He Can’t Love You,” the dark-haired songwriter took an ebullient trek through “My Town,” that was equal parts party-thrill and rallying cry for the truth of how everyone’s present soul was forged. High spirited and raucous, the celebration of where he comes from, what was learned and lost on the way to today induced cheers, pumped fists and the sense of bad-as-it-is-we’ve-still-got-the-guts-to-win.
But it was former bandmate Jonah Koslen’s “Strike Up The Band,” long the chant-along MSB set-closer, that became Stanley’s altar call. Taking the mic and walking back and forth along the stage, he exhortedly ran the fans through all the realities that a 35 year love affair with them had held, this was about letting the music take you higher… the notion there was grace in rocking, truth in letting go, a reason to believe in the music even when the credit card debt was mounting, unemployment rising and no clear answers lay ahead.
It is about musicianship as release, as well. For Pelander, it was a barrelhouse piano effusion. Bass player Eric Sosinski and drummer Tommy Dobeck came through with a very Average White Band solo section. 2nd lead guitarist Marc Lee Shannon found an exploratory sweet spot somewhere between Stevie Ray Vaughan and Mark Knopfler. And always, the beat and the euphoria went on.
In the end, the fellow Clevelander’s song about joy in a breadline may not be literally read, but the intent is clear. This all we got, so let’s rock it while we can. For one night in downtown Cleveland, a lot of people did just that. Not that anyone in Jersey or Tampa knew – or realized. But sometimes salvation comes at the roots, in the streets, right where you’re at. Perhaps that’s most comforting reality of all.